Last Saturday, while most of our buses and drivers were up at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, my husband and I got up early (for a Saturday), stacked our kayaks on our car, and took off for Cathedral Park. We were heading for our first official river cleanup with the Willamette Riverkeepers and the 3rd Annual Great Willamette Clean Up.


After a notorious death-ride on the Sandy in our brand new hard-shell kayaks, I’ve been spending the last two summers restricting paddling activities to lakes and the Columbia Slough. I was just a little nervous to put in on the heavily trafficked Willamette. Huge ships regularly visit the numerous industrial terminals along the peninsula, creating “massive” waves (okay, so they’re only like, one foot waves, but my memory shoots back to the way my boat reacted to the smallest whitewater on the Sandy and suddenly my heart’s a-racin’). The river cleanup was just a really fun-sounding event and a chance to get rid of all that nasty trash (styrofoam and plastic) that irks me to the core, so I decided to overcome my fears and paddle the mighty Willamette!


We met up with about 20 other volunteers at Cathedral Park, and volunteers gathered at 12 other locations throughout the Portland Metro. We joined a group of volunteers from University of Portland and Toyota who were using canoes, and made our way up to the Toyota port downriver. Almost immediately, a giant ship arrived on the scene, and I kind of freaked out, paddling into the waves so that they wouldn’t tip me over. My boat behaved as it was supposed to managing to keep me afloat. My fears quickly subsided and we continued on downstream.


We arrived at our first stop, somewhere northwest of the St. John’s Bridge and southeast of Kelly Point. A sea-kayaking member of our team found a giant glacier-sized, slightly eroded cube of styrofoam as soon as we arrived and a backup fishing boat was called in to come gather it. (Glaciers take up most of the boat, and you can’t really paddle.) My husband and I found a relatively flat place to come ashore and we clumsily climbed up the rock embankment. At first the only trash we saw was the blue shipping rope stuck under the massive boulder pile. As our eyes adjusted to dry land though, the plastic, styrofoam, and metal debris came into view. I quickly filled a full sized trash bag with old shirts, squirt bottles, mysteriously shaped eroded plastic, and styrofoam molded into all shapes and sizes. My husband gathered so much discarded, rusting metal that his bag soon weighed as much as our mid-sized chocolate lab. We returned to our kayaks and paddled back towards Cathedral Park.

Back in the river again, a couple in our group canoed along the edge and corralled another giant styrofoam glacier. Glaciers are more suited for rides in canoes and it sat nicely on the center bar like a third passenger. The second clean up site had a nice little sandy beach for us to land on, so getting out here was much easier. The beach here was much easier to walk on than all the rocks of the previous stop too, so the whole group spent time here and we all filled at least another bag with mostly styrofoam. Hubby managed to fit his heavy metal collection into my bag of foamy finds, giving him another plastic bag to fill.


 It wasn’t until the third stop that I got a much more in-your-face picture of exactly what we were really doing to the banks of our rivers. I kept finding all this netting that the Army Corps of Engineers had used to arrange the boulders on the riverbanks. It was now blown haphazardly around the beach, attaching itself to bushes and trees and, of course, plastic crap. It had also somehow caught styrofoam pieces, fishing lures, ketchup bottles, and even a sweatshirt. Up close to the fence-line, our group’s leader discovered that the “soil” here was actually a mix of broken up bits of styrofoam, decaying logs (good!), and tiny bits of trash. Does anyone else remember that our rivers used to provide us with fertile soil, enriched with silt, so we could sustain ourselves? It’s certainly not like that now!


I finally found a good use for styrofoam at our last stop, when I discovered my second hypodermic needle. It makes for a great way to prevent yourself from getting pricked by the nasty thing. Sadly, we had to leave this little innovation behind, since the styrofoam could easily come off the needle which stab the people who would be sorting out the recyclables later. The whole thing was over too fast and we had to head back to Cathedral Park, our boats brimming with bags of detritus.


This seems to be a good way to spend sunny days, considering there are literally boatloads of trash along our river’s beaches. It’s also confirmed what I already knew, which is that styrofoam and plastic is bad, m’kay. This trash ends up all over the place, and you probably eat it if you eat fish and such. What will future generations think of us? If these are our leave-behinds, I can only imagine…


By Guest Blogger, Fiona Yun